VAR: The long road to refereeing perfection

(Photo credit: REUTERS/STAFF)

VAR (Video assistant referee) has had a difficult integration into English football.

When Huddersfield Town played Manchester United in February of this year, it was a pinnacle moment for the new technology. The FA Cup game saw one huge controversial moment in which Juan Mata saw his goal chalked off for a marginal offside decision by VAR. 

It could be argued that Mata’s disallowed goal is the reason why the Premier League has pushed back on adding this new technology to their games. 

Fans, pundits and clubs lack a true understanding of VAR. Importantly in the pursuit of perfection, VAR could remove one of the best things about being a football fan - the arguments in the pub after the game about decisions. 

I spoke to Paul Rejer who has a wealth of experience as a former Football League referee, FIFA linesman, Premier League linesman and referee coach. Plus, he is the former director of training and education and the first ever VAR manager in the MLS - so I asked him about the problems with video refereeing and how it can work in this country. 


“I think they need more training. There is no point in rushing if they aren't ready to do it. In the MLS we had two years solid training before it was introduced in the MLS. We started with a room of referees and getting clips so we could work out the protocol. We even roleplayed, and it was simple.” 

At the crux of this issue is the lack of testing VAR has received in this country. Rejer and his team in the MLS spent two years working on VAR and it was atop of the agenda for the league.

The Premier League has only a handful of games to look at as reference points and the referees themselves have been using it in high-pressure scenarios. Neither the FA or Premier League have done enough testing of VAR at the lower levels or even in reserve football so that referees and the video referees can get used to the system. 

Is it any surprise that we have seen some controversial VAR moments when the referees themselves are totally new to it? 

Referees and clubs need to really see VAR used over a long period and perhaps the conference or reserve football should be a testing ground for it. 

Rejer added that: “We then moved onto friendly games and then into the reserve leagues. So it was a long process before we got to the MLS level.”

The key difference is that the MLS never tried to test the technology on live television in front of huge audiences first. They tested the technology beforehand in very low-pressure situations. 

Subjective decisions

One of the best things about football is arguing about refereeing decisions. Fans around the country spend their evenings discussing the talking points from the games and often that revolves around refereeing decisions.

Effectively this means is that most decisions are subjective. My view of a foul may be different to your view. For referees that is true as well - certain referees are more lenient than others. 

For VAR this is a huge issue: “Where they go wrong is that decisions are people's opinions. If VAR says to the referee that it should have been a penalty for a trip or that was handball because he thinks that. Then the referee may not agree and then everyone disagrees with the decision.

“So the Mata decision where he was flagged offside (FA Cup game in February between Manchester United and Huddersfield). No one agreed with that because it was not conclusive. 

“Really that should not have been overturned because it was inconclusive.

“Factual decisions are where a foul takes place inside or outside the area or if the ball crosses the line. They are facts and we can't get in trouble for factual decisions.”

People in football believe that VAR is the pursuit of perfection when really you cannot referee a game of football perfectly. Free kick, penalties and whether someone should be carded are subjective, your view is different to someone else's which therefore means that VAR will always be controversial. 

Just think about all the time's pundits on TV argue about whether this decision was right or wrong - the reality is that sometimes decisions fall into a murky grey area of inconclusiveness. And thus we have an impossible situation for referees and VAR.

But that does not mean VAR cannot work. Rejer rightly points out that factual decisions are facts - therefore no one can argue about them. So the answer is really that our perception of VAR needs to change. This technology ought to exist to assist referees, not analyse every major decision in every game. 

Do you think VAR is a good idea? Let us know in the comments section below.

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